Recently, I was asked to deliver a Cameo speech for my local Probus Club. I had been reflecting that it had been three long years since my last visit to the Stourhead Gardens in England’s West Country, so naturally, I welcomed the chance to share with my fellow members one of my favourite places in the world – in memory at least…
I had long been intrigued by pictures in travel magazines of the Roman Pantheon incongruously nestling somewhere in England’s green and pleasant countryside, so it was a great surprise to find it at Stourhead when taken there by my English friends. Stourhead – another strange English placename – is located near the village of Stourton. It’s situated at the head of the River Stour – hence the name. Stourton takes its name from the Stourton family who had lived on the Stourhead estate for 500 years, until it was sold in the early 18thcentury firstly to the Mere family and then to the Hoare family.
The Hoare family had made a vast fortune out of the South Sea Bubble Crisis in 1719. Like so many wealthy English families of the day, they built an imposing manor house, but it is the gardens that attract the visitors today. The Hoare family dammed the River Stour to form an artificial lake and built the gardens around it. Following a path around the lake is meant to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent in to the underworld. Also in the gardens are a number of structures inspired by scenes of the Grand Tour of Europe, which was fashionable among the wealthy at the time. Such structures include the Temple of Flora, dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers and Spring, and a Gothic Cottage Summerhouse.
Next the path leads to a Grotto. These grottos were popular in Italian Renaissance gardens as places of retreat from the summer heat. Stourhead’s Grotto is a circular, domed chamber built to resemble a cave. The Grotto recreates the scene from Virgil’s Aeneid in which Aeneas meets the nymphs and the River God and is shown the way to the Pantheon and the altar of Hercules.
But it is the Pantheon that is the showcase of Stourhead.Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, this structure was built in 1753-54. It’s the largest garden building at Stourhead. ‘Pantheon’ means a temple sacred to all the gods. The temple is filled with statues of classical deities, including a marble Hercules created by Rysbrack. The interior of Stourhead’s Pantheon, as were the other buildings in the garden, was modelled on the classical art of that time.
Yet still the path beckons us on, across the dam to the Temple of Apollo, God of music and the arts.Then the path leads us back to the restaurant and lunch. Stourhead is a wonderful place to celebrate important occasions with long-time friends.